The History of Phonics Instruction:

Prior to the eighteen hundreds, English language instruction had always been traditionally taught via phonics. However, during the mid-eighteen hundreds the Prussian method of reading instruction, known as Whole Language instruction, overtook phonetic instruction in popularity and became the primary way that language was instructed in the west until the 1950s. Whole Language instruction is based on the idea that students learn phonetics naturally and do not need to be explicitly taught decoding skills. Moreover, Whole Language is based on the idea that learning how to read is a natural process. 

During the 1950s there began to be an increasing body of evidence that phonetic instruction might be a superior form of language instruction. By the 1990s this appeared to be a settled debate, as most teachers once again began to teach reading in the formative years of students’ education with phonics. “The International Reading Association’s position paper (1998) on the role of phonics in reading instruction summed it up this way: “Rather than engage in debates about whether phonics should or should not be taught, effective teachers of reading and writing ask when, how, how much, and under what circumstances phonics should be taught.” (Starret, 2006).

However, likely to the surprise of Starret, as postmodern education approaches such as inquiry-based learning grew in popularity, so did resentment towards the phonetic approach. This new wave of teaching philosophy saw explicit or direct instruction methods, as naturally authoritarian, similar to textbook work, homework, and rote memorization. This led to the rise in popularity of Fountas and Pinnell who popularized the idea of implicit instruction or guided reading, as the most important pedagogical concept for reading instruction. In many ways, this new movement of education was a reactionary movement, against more traditional and authoritarian teaching methods, from the past. 

The Rise of Balanced Literacy:

With the rise of implicit reading instruction, also came a new concept referred to as Balanced Literacy. Balanced Literacy advocates sought to end the reading wars debate, by combining what they saw as the best of both strategies. While as the name suggests part of the approach is focused on dividing literacy instruction into multiple types and devoting attention to each type: reading fluency, reading comprehension, phonics, and writing. However, Balanced Literacy advocates, like Fountas and Pinnell wanted to avoid the direct instruction methods of the past for phonetic instruction, this led to the idea of teaching phonetics, unsystematically. (Education Weekly, 2019). 

Under the Balanced Literacy Approach to phonics, teachers are not supposed to directly teach phonics, but rather use it as a specific intervention for students that are struggling. For example, when a student is struggling with a word a Balanced Literacy teacher would help them sound it out, but would not explicitly teach lessons on phonics. Balanced literacy advocates believe that phonetic instruction should be limited to single letter sounds and  not contain any blends (Ibid). 


Lastly, balanced literacy teachers have advocated that instead of having students focus on decoding words they do not understand, that students should also be taught reading cues, that help students guess the meaning of the word. These can cues include using the pictures, and context of sentences, to guess the meaning of a word or sentence. Image credit: (Education Weekly, 2019).

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The Third Wave of Phonics Instruction:

This new anti phonics pedagogical movement, however, gained an unlikely opponent. With the rise of special education, so came a rise in parental advocacy groups. And in recent years, advocacy groups for parents of students with Dyslexia, have been increasingly focused on the use of phonics instructions for emergent readers as the most effective instructional approach. These parental advocacy groups have been especially fueled by an ever-growing body of scientific literature that suggests quite definitively that the explicit instruction of phonics is more effective in increasing reading levels of emergent readers than whole language approaches.

While in some ways, the normative pedagogies of most schools will likely be slow to change, there are growing signs that institutional change is coming. Take the state of Arkansas, who recently banned the use of any whole language instruction programs, calling them unscientific, including Fountas and Pinnell’s (Arkansas 2020). 

The academic debate on this subject has been labeled the Reading Wars debate because it is seen as the most hotly debated subject within the academic literature on education. However, while the public policy aspect of this debate is largely still in full effect, the actual academic debate has been essentially settled and it essential that teachers understand the context of the debate, for when they are exposed to Whole Language Advocates. 

What Does the Research Say:

There have been multiple meta-analyses of the topic, and almost all of them have come to the same conclusion. John Hattie has done a meta-analysis on meta-studies comparing each reading instruction strategy to a control group and found phonetic instruction to have an ES of .70, (high impact size), vs whole language instruction which had an ES of .06, making whole-language instruction an extremely low yield strategy. This means that statistically speaking, most studies looking at a whole language approach, compared to a control group show little to no effect, were as studies looking at a phonetic approach typically show a very significant effect. 

Phonics vs Whole Language.png

Image credit: (

A meta-analysis of balanced literacy programs by Graham et al found that balanced literacy programs had an overall ES of .33, with a P value of .001 (confidence measure) (Graham,11). This would suggest that a balanced literacy approach is better than a Whole Language approach but still worse than a phonics driven approach. It is important to note, that according to this data, Balanced Literacy would still be classified by John Hattie’s terms as a low yield strategy.

Graham et al.png

Image credit: (S, Graham, et al. (2017).

The NRP which is the leading policy research organization for literacy in the United States did their own meta-analysis of the topic and found similar results to John Hattie, with an ES of .86 for phonemic awareness and an ES of .53 for reading fluency, with phonetic instruction, giving it an overall ES of .695, making it with a decimal point of John Hattie’s research (NRP, 21). 

Linnea et al conducted a meta-study where they broke down the phonics instruction by different types. According to their meta-study phonics, when paired with direct instruction had even larger ES than in Hattie’s meta-study; however, their meta-study also showed a larger ES for whole language instruction. Despite this fact, Linnea et al’s meta-study showed a clear quantitative benefit for phonics over Whole-Language Instruction. 


Image credit: (Lineea et al, 2001). 

Interestingly, Linnea Et Al’s meta-analysis also showed a pretty direct correlation, between lowering the class size and increasing the results. They likely included this data, because there has been debate over whether or not phonics instruction should only be for struggling readers. And well small groups outperformed whole classes, and one on one instruction outperformed small groups, it stems to reason that this advantage would hold true for any type of instruction.

There are many types of phonics instruction; however, the two most popular are synthetic and analytic. Synthetic, phonics instruction only looks at individual letters; whereas, analytic instruction teaches blends of letters. According to Tim Shanahan, the lead researcher on the NRP meta-analysis, “There was a higher effect size associated with teaching synthetic phonics than analytic phonics. In other words, across these studies, the kids who were taught synthetically did somewhat better on various reading measures (kids seemed to get a greater learning payoff from the simpler approach). However, that difference wasn’t statistically significant (meaning that it could just be a chance occurrence that a difference of that size was obtained).” (Shanahan, 2018). 

When Should Phonics Instruction Start and End?

That being said, I personally like to teach phonics both synthetically and analytically, but in stages. While phonics are the basic building blocks of language, synthetic phonics are the building blocks of analytic phonics. In other words, in order for students to understand the sounds blends make, students need to first understand the sounds each letter makes. I will typically test students and instruct students first on the basic alphabetic sounds and then move onto teaching phonetic blends, once they have mastered this. 

If we look at this Meta-analysis by Linea et al, we can see that phonics instruction is useful starting in Kindergarten (Linea, 13). 

Lineea 2.png

Image Credit: (Ibid). 
As we can see here these results appear to be consistent through to Grade 6 for decoding (Ibid).

Lineea 3.png

Image credit: (Ibid).

However, if we look at this data, as it pertains to all reading skills, it becomes quite clear that phonics instruction begins to taper off in usefulness, somewhere between grade 2 and grade 6. The specific grade in which it tapers off is not clear from this data; however, one of the authors stated in an interview that it is grade 3. This interview can be found  here:


Image Credit: (NRP, 2001).

Ultimately, phonics is a decoding skill, so if a student is mostly a fluent reader, there is no logical reason to provide them with decoding instruction. That being said, while most readers by the age of grade 6 should be fluent enough that decoding instruction is no longer useful, if they have not developed this fundamental knowledge, phonics instruction should still be useful. Phonics should be directly instructed to all emerging readers. In a grade 1 class, almost all students should be emerging readers and therefore the whole class should receive phonics instruction. Whereas, in a grade 8 class, you might have 1 emerging reader, who needs this direct instruction. 

The Impact of Phonics Instruction on Reading Disabled Students:

Studies on students diagnosed with Dyslexia show that their brains look physically different when scanned by MRI machines; however, multiple experiments have confirmed that providing students with enough one on one phonics instruction, returns these brains to a normalized state (Barque, 2014). In this sense, phonics instruction could be looked at as a literal cure for dyslexia and might be reflective of the fact that, from a clinical perspective, a dyslexic reader is an emergent reader at an inappropriately high age. This is not to say that all students with dyslexia do not have a neurological cause to their difficulties, but that these difficulties have been proven to be treatable with a phonetic intervention. 

Phonics Instruction for ELL students:

It is important for students who are ELL students to start with phonics instruction because they often do not start with a basic understanding of the English Alphabets sounds. Even French and English, which technically use the same alphabet, assign different sounds to letters and blends. A study by Azhar, et al looked at the impact of phonics instruction on ELL students. Their study showed an ES of 2.2 for decoding skills and .60 for reading comprehension. According to this study not only would phonics instruction for ELL students be a high yield strategy, but it would also be an EXTREMELY high yield strategy for teaching decoding to ELL students (Azhar, 13). 

PNG Phonics Recommendations: 

Personally, I would advocate for the systematic direct instruction of synthetic phonics to all emerging readers and also for the systematic direct instruction of analytic phonics, once students had mastered synthetic phonics. This means explicitly standing up at the front of a classroom, going over the sounds of the English alphabet with students. However, I would also advocate one on one instruction, small group instruction, game-based instruction, and phonics homework for students. I also think that phonics instruction should be paired with fluency instruction, with fluency instruction slowly increasing over time, as students decoding skills improve. Reading comprehension should also increase over time, while phonetic instruction decreases. 

The Reading Instruction Continuum.png

Image Credit: Nathaniel Hansford, PNG

Written by, Nathaniel Hansford 6/23/2020

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-NRP. (2001). Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence Based Assessment of the Scientific Literature on Reading Instruction. United States Government. Retrieved from <>. 

-Ehri, Linnea C., et al. “Systematic Phonics Instruction Helps Students Learn to Read: Evidence from the National Reading Panel's Meta-Analysis.” Review of Educational Research, vol. 71, no. 3, 2001, pp. 393–447. JSTOR, Accessed 18 May 2020. 

Phonics Books. (2020). Phonics Code Tables. Retrieved from <There also free and can be found here:> 

T, Shanahan. (2018). Which is best? Analytic or Synthetic Phonics Instruction. Reading Rockets. Retrieved from <>. 

Education Weekly. (2019). Phonics vs. Balanced Literacy: A Classroom Comparison. Retrieved from <>. 

S, Graham, et al. (2017). Effectiveness of Literacy Programs Balancing Reading and Writing Instruction: A Meta-Analysis. Reading Research Quarterly. Volume 53: Issue 3. 

L, Barque, N, Davis, L, Cutting. (2014). Neuroimaging of Reading Intervention: A Systematic Review and Activation Likelihood Estimate Meta-Analysis. PMCID: PMC3888398. PMID: 24427278. 

Jamaludin, Khairul Azhar, et al. “The Effectiveness of Synthetic Phonics in the Development of Early Reading Skills among Struggling Young ESL Readers.” School Effectiveness and School Improvement, vol. 27, no. 3, July 2016, pp. 455–470, doi:10.1080/09243453.2015.1069749.

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